Analysis'We’re there now, they hear us more, we hear them more'

Is Netanyahu’s government botching the Abraham Accords?

With no high-level visits and growing condemnations from Arab partners, the 2020 pacts are clearly in a slump, but they are here to stay

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich and other party leaders in a group photo after the swearing-in of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich and other party leaders in a group photo after the swearing-in of the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Nearly three decades ago, 5,000 guests gathered in the Arava Valley near the border with Jordan to witness what they were sure would be the start of a warm peace.

With US president Bill Clinton looking on, Israeli and Jordanian girls presented bouquets to Jordan’s King Hussein and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“This is peace with dignity,” said Hussein, as Clinton beamed. “This is peace with commitment. This our gift to our peoples, and the generations to come.”

“Israel and Jordan are not just ending their hostility, they are promising something far deeper,” said ITN Middle East correspondent Robert Moore in his report on the  October 1994 peace treaty, “a friendship that will cross the great Arab-Israeli divide.”

The peace agreement that Israel and Jordan signed that day reflected the hopes for deep and comprehensive peace between two neighbors that had been cooperating quietly for decades. The sides pledged to rapidly conclude economic agreements on banking, free trade, and investment; to initiate cultural and scientific exchanges; to protect the environment together; to promote interfaith cooperation; and to collaborate in diverse fields, including renewable energy, agriculture, health, and tourism.

“The Parties will seek to foster mutual understanding and tolerance based on shared historic values,” read the treaty.

A few short years later, it was clear that while the ties were permanent, they were merely a cold peace between leaders – “the king’s peace,” as Jordanians dismissively referred to it – not a breakthrough between societies.

Elyakim Rubinstein (left) stands next to Yitzhak Rabin as he signs the peace treaty with Jordan, October 26, 1994 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

It took another generation for Israel to conclude more peace treaties with Arab countries. The 2020 Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco have been touted in even more grandiose terms.

“Because this is not only a peace between leaders, it’s a peace between peoples—Israelis, Emiratis and Bahrainis are already embracing one another,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House signing ceremony. “We are eager to invest in a future of partnership, prosperity and peace.”

“What we are doing here today is making history,” crowed then-foreign minister Yair Lapid at the 2022 Negev Summit. “Building a new regional architecture based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation.”

Former president Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But two and a half years into the agreements, and three months into the tenure of the latest Netanyahu-led government, there is ample reason to  watch the trajectory of Israel’s ties with its new partners with a concerned eye. The ballyhoo and momentum around the initial signing has ebbed, and if new life is not injected into Israel’s new relationships with Arab countries, they too could settle into something that pales in comparison to the initial vision.

Absences and condemnations

On Sunday evening, the Foreign Ministry hosted an iftar dinner evening for Muslim-country diplomats serving in Israel. The ambassadors from Turkey and Egypt joined Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Director General Ronen Levy to end the day’s Ramadan fast, as did Abderrahim Beyyoudh, head of Morocco’s liaison office in Israel.

But the ambassadors from Bahrain and the UAE stayed away from the event. Their explanations that they were otherwise occupied wouldn’t have been especially remarkable until recently, but with a parade of discouraging developments, one could not help noticing the absence.

Diplomats from Muslim countries serving in Israel and local Muslim leaders attend an iftar meal hosted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry April 2, 2023. (Sivan Shachor/GPO)

Israel’s Gulf allies certainly don’t have any problem with Netanyahu himself, and might well be happy to see the man who strode into Washington to oppose the American president on the Iran nuclear deal back in office.

But they do seem skittish about members of Netanyahu’s government. During its first week in power, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the Temple Mount, prompting Abu Dhabi to lambaste the “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard” and call for an end to “serious and provocative violations.” It also co-submitted the request that led to an emergency gathering of the UN Security Council, further escalating the issue on the international stage.

Netanyahu had been pushing to make his first visit to the UAE the very next week, but the Emiratis postponed his visit, citing scheduling problems. A Middle East diplomat who spoke with The Times of Israel confirmed that Ben Gvir’s actions were what underlay the postponement of the visit.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks in Paris on March 19, 2023. (Ynet screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“A decision was made to slow down the public engagement,” the diplomat said in late February.

Since then, no senior Israeli officials have been invited to either the UAE or Bahrain, nor have they have not sent any ministers to Israel.

And the two Gulf countries – the UAE especially – have repeatedly and openly condemned Israeli leaders and policies.

Settlers pray as cars and homes burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Weeks later in Paris, Smotrich said that the Palestinian people were “an invention” from the last century and that people like himself and his grandparents were the “real Palestinians.” In response, the foreign ministers of the six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council – including Bahrain and the UAE – sent a letter  to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemning Smotrich.

They also blasted Israel for “repeated incursions by Israeli settlers into the courtyards of the Holy Al Aqsa Mosque”; settlement construction; military raids in the West Bank; expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem; and “attempts to change [the] legal character, demographic composition, and arrangements for Islamic holy places.”

In mid-March, a senior United Arab Emirates government official met with Netanyahu and reportedly warned him that the Israeli government’s conduct was straining ties between the countries. “The direction of this government goes completely against the Abraham Accords,” Mubarak was quoted as having told Netanyahu.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

In the wake of a terror attack that killed two Israeli brothers in the Palestinian West Bank town of Huwara in February, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the town should be “wiped out.” He later retracted the comment, but not before condemnation poured in from around the world, including Abu Dhabi.

And last week, the UAE “strongly” condemned the Knesset vote to roll back legislation that ordered the evacuation of four northern West Bank settlements.

“There is growing tension between the states,” warned Moran Zaga, Gulf expert at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “There is a growth in the use of condemnations.”

“We are testing their patience,” she cautioned.

It’s not only the UAE’s statements that are cause for concern. After Israeli settlers rampaged through Huwara, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed ordered that $3 million be given to rehabilitate the West Bank Palestinian town.

President Isaac Herzog meets with UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi on December 5, 2022. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The data also shows a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s new allies.

Washington Institute polling showed 45% of Bahrainis holding very or somewhat positive views of the agreements in November 2020. That support had steadily eroded to a paltry 20% by March of this year.

The trend is the same in the UAE. The 49% of the country that disapproved of the Abraham Accords in 2020 has grown to over two-thirds as of last month. And only 31% of Moroccans favor normalization, according to Arab Barometer.

Positive signs

At the same time, those who want to focus on the positive developments have plenty to point at. Last week, UAE-Israel economic ties took an important step forward as the two sides signed the final, and most important, component of a free trade agreement (albeit without an Emirati minister present).

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauds as Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed al-Khaja exchange signed copies of the custom agreement between the countries, March 26, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Days later, they finalized a deal granting mutual recognition to their citizens’ driver’s licenses.

“There’s still been a lot of forward movement since Israel’s new right-wing government entered office,” said John Hannah, senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and former national security adviser to US vice president Dick Cheney.

He pointed at the January virtual meeting between the US, Israeli, Bahraini and Emirati national security advisers, who issued a joint statement committing all sides to continue deepening relations. Both the IDF chief of staff and a Knesset delegation visited Bahrain.

Israeli and US National Security Advisers Tzahi Hanegbi (right) and Jake Sullivan speak with their UAE and Bahrain counterparts via video from Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“The Israeli navy openly participated not only with the navies of Morocco, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan in Centcom’s International Maritime Exercise 2023, but even with those from many Arab countries that Israel hasn’t yet normalized relations with, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Tunisia, and Lebanon,” Hannah continued.

“No one is pulling out of the Abraham Accords,” said Joshua Krasna, director of Center for Emerging Energy Politics in the Middle East. “It’s a strategic choice they made, each one for slightly different reasons.

“That strategic logic hasn’t changed.”

For the UAE, Israel is a natural partner because its economy complements the Emirati one. It does not compete with the UAE like other energy superpowers do, and as the UAE moves to diversity its economy, Israel’s tech scene is a good match.

No one is pulling out of the Abraham Accords.

Even if their perception of their own interests changed drastically, it’s unlikely the Abraham Accords countries would retract their recognition of Israel. The leadership already paid the price for the accords among their citizenries, and withdrawing would be an admission that they had been terribly mistaken.

After meeting for the Negev Summit, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center left, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, shake hands with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, front left, and United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, front right, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

An Israeli diplomat involved in the Abraham Accords insisted the condemnations were the natural consequences of positive trends.

“There’s more criticism because they’re paying attention,” he said. “We’re there now, they hear us more, we hear them more.”

He added that the Abraham Accords were a surprise to everyone involved, and it will take time until everyone understands how to work with each other.

After Ramadan, the diplomat predicted, there will be a noticeable rise in mutual visits, and the Negev Summit will come together in Morocco.

Zaga stressed that there are plenty of diplomatic tools – reprimands, recalling ambassadors – that the countries have chosen not to use.

The caravan goes on

The slowdown in the growing ties is not, then, a sign that the Abraham Accords are in serious danger at this stage, but that Israel’s partners are waiting until they are confident that Netanyahu has asserted control over his cabinet.

They want to avoid a scenario in which they welcome Netanyahu into the palace days before another round of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, or a headline-grabbing remark by a careless minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 19, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

“The last thing leaders like President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE needs right now is looking like he’s been duped or conned,” said Hannah, “and giving the Iranians and Muslim Brotherhood Islamists a stick to weaponize against him and beat him with.”

While Netanyahu’s relatively weak position in his coalition has led to tensions in the Abraham Accords, they could also be an opportunity for Israel’s Arab allies to push him in a more comfortable direction.

“Because this government signed a coalition agreement that they wouldn’t do anything to harm the Abraham Accords,” said Zaga, “they can create a counter force to pressure Netanyahu to moderate the far-right.”

“The Gulf states can be a moderating influence within Israel.”

Even if certain ministers continue to run their mouths, progress will continue, albeit slow and away from the cameras.

“As the saying goes, the dogs bark, but the caravan goes on,” mused Hannah, “at least in most areas and at least for now.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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